During the long overnight hours leading up to D-Day, Private John Marvin Steele joined his fellow American soldiers in the 82nd Airborne and parachuted over a small village in Normandy. While the drop was supposed to be a secretive mission, an unexpected house fire and the community’s bucket brigade brightly lit up the town center of Sainte-Mère-Église. The fire and lights made the American paratroopers easy targets for the German military, leading to heavy losses within the group. Steele took a hit to his foot and could no longer control his parachute.
The Metropolis, Illinois native soon found himself perilously caught and dangling from the spire of the town’s church. After more than two hours of struggling to free himself and playing dead, a German solider, Rudolph May, helped the American paratrooper down, took him prisoner, and got him medical treatment. Steele escaped days later and reconnected with the Allied forces pushing into France.
Big Rivers Electric Corporation and Jackson Purchase Energy Corporation Board Member Erick Harris grew up listening to his grandmother tell stories about his great-uncle, the American soldier who got caught on a French church tower during World War II. However, Harris didn’t know much about the town where Steele landed.
But as the 75th anniversary of D-Day approached, Harris’ father received a personal invitation from Jean-Marie Lemoigne, a resident of Sainte-Mère-Église, asking for one of Steele’s family members to visit and connect with the family of May. Since his father was unable to make the trip, Harris volunteered to go.
“It was all overwhelming,” said Harris. “After a very long flight to Paris and a three-hour train ride from St. Lazere to Carentan, our host Jean-Marie Lemoigne and family greeted my wife and I with a warm welcome and took us to their home.”
The residents of Sainte-Mère-Église began escorting Harris and his wife through a busy schedule of site visits, ceremonies, and reenactments. The first stops included meeting with the owner of the Auberge Le John Steele restaurant and seeing the town center in person.
“We next visited the church, which was a very impressive structure built in the 12th century,” said Harris. “It was an emotional experience to see the mannequin of paratrooper John Steele hanging on the side.”
On the following day, Harris and his wife toured the Sainte-Mère-Église Airborne Museum, where they received personal guidance from the museum’s director. While on the special tour, Harris was introduced to Simone Renaud, the son of the town’s mayor on June 6, 1944.
“We had a long conservation with him, and he invited us to his house to look at letters written to his family from John Steele after the war,” said Harris. “I presented the museum with a personal address book that belonged to John Steele, containing his military contacts from the 82nd Airborne and many others to be displayed in the museum with the other items they have on display of John’s.”
The last stops for Harris and his wife were a D-Day reenactment at Utah Beach and a jump day demonstration with soldiers dressed in WWII uniforms. They also met General Patton’s granddaughter, General Eisenhower’s granddaughter, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
However, the most touching moment came when Harris got to meet the family of the German soldier who cut his great-uncle down from the church face-to-face.
“The part of the trip I will remember the most is when I met Jorg May, the son of Rudolph May,” said Harris. “The mayor allowed us to go to the bell house and the pinnacle of the church tower where John hung. With the church filled to capacity, the mayor presented Jorg and myself a commemorative medallion of the town recognizing the occasion. The crowd in the church started clapping in a rhythm that I will never forget.”
Harris left the D-Day memorials in France with new friendships and a great respect for the communities that continue to honor these brave servicemembers 75 years later.
“I was amazed of the amount of history that remains there and the patriotism and appreciation the citizens of Sainte-Mère-Église have to the United States and to WWll veterans,” said Harris. “There is so much more, but it was truly a trip of a lifetime.”